It was after dark Sunday evening when a small herd of wildlife settled in David Painter’s yard in Coconino Estates, completely undetected by the fourth-grade teacher.
Until around 6 a.m. the next morning, when he stepped outside to get firewood.
“I opened my door and I saw this javelina staring at me and I jumped. I literally jumped,” Painter said. “It caught me off-guard, it looked that real. Then I realized what it was.”
The javelina was one of about 15 student-created, life-sized animal replicas, part of the Arizona animals project, a Sechrist Elementary tradition dating back to even before Painter’s arrival at the school 20 years ago.
Every year, the school’s fourth-graders choose an animal native to the state and create their replica, made out of mostly of recycled materials, at home while researching its habitat, diet and other characteristics during the school day.
This year, Ari Salberg, 9, chose a Cooper’s hawk, which she made out of a repurposed orange juice bottle covered in bandage, felt and feathers, with chopstick feet.
“I didn’t know it even existed,” Ari said. “It mostly lives in Sedona, but when it’s winter it goes to southern Mexico.”
The projects are displayed in the Sechrist courtyard to form the annual “Arizona Animal Wildlife Park,” which students in different grades and families can walk through to see each year’s creations.
Painter assigned the project at the end of February, to be due Monday, March 30. With schools closed statewide to prevent the spread of COVID-19, however, it seemed the tradition would miss a year.
When Painter saw the menagerie -- including two bears, a cottontail rabbit, rosy boa, humming bird, bluebird, river otter, mud turtle and more -- that had been staged around his yard, he began to cry.
“To think they would think that much of me to do that. It was a special moment,” Painter said. “With the emotion of the times and everything that’s going on with the schools and not seeing the kids, it just of hit me. It’s definitely something I will never forget.”
“It all came together perfectly and he really did have tears in his eyes in the morning,” said Jessica Sargent, Ari’s mother, who walked by Painter’s house shortly after he first saw his students’ projects.
Sargent had the idea to surprise Painter, her neighbor, when he mentioned how disappointed he was that the students wouldn’t be able to share their projects in person this year.
“I thought to myself, 'Gosh, I know enough kids in the school, I know enough kids in this class, we could probably get half of the class to drop their animals off,'” Sargent said.
More than a week before the project was due, she contacted other parents to share the idea.
“Being a teacher myself, and knowing how hard my own daughter worked on this project, it seemed like the right thing to do: a natural, random act of kindness that I could spread a little joy to Mr. Painter," Sargent added.
Students and families arrived throughout the evening Sunday, sneaking into Painter’s front yard. Careful to keep social distancing standards, some families drove by, with kids hopping out of the car to assemble their project, while others who live closer walked to the house. As students set up their projects, many of them were able to see Painter, his back to the window as he sat near the fireplace, working on his computer or watching television.
“I was totally clueless,” Painter said. “There were a few times my wife and I got up, walked around and even looked out window and saw these cars driving by really slowly. I didn’t really think much of it.”
Beth Duschatko and her daughter, Amelia Sobol, 9, walked to Painter’s house around 7:30 p.m. to set up Amelia’s papier-mâché black bear cub, even bringing along their dogs.
Amelia’s older sister completed the project when she was in fourth grade, so Duschatko was very familiar with what it meant to students — and to Painter.
“It’s the kind of things that the kids spend so much time on every year. They had already started the project so they were already really excited about it and we knew Mr. Painter would get a kick out of it,” Duschatko said.
The family rode their bicycles by Painter’s house Monday afternoon just to see the full display of animals. About half of the 29-student class was able to drop off their creations in time for the surprise.
“In these times, we’re trying to keep any semblance of normalcy that we can, and we also just really wanted to give the kids a chance to display their work and show Mr. Painter how much we love and miss him,” Duschatko said. “He’s an amazing teacher, and it’s such a bummer for the kids that their fourth-grade year is short because he makes it really special.”
Painter has since moved the wildlife to the side of his yard, which borders a street corner, to share the examples of Arizona creatures — and Sechrist devotion — with his neighbors.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (928) 556-2253.
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